Hangin’ 10 in the chill froth

What it’s like to surf in one of the northernmost parts of the world

Arctic surfer Kian Bourke

Photo: Kian Bourke-Steer
Surfing in the Arctic can be as beautiful as in the tropics but in a totally different way.

Victoria Hofmo
Brooklyn, N.Y.

I remember listening to a newscaster commenting on the 1994 Winter Olympics in Norway. Watching the risky ski jumpers, he mused, “Those Norwegians are crazy.” He meant it in a complimentary way. He wasn’t at all vicious. He just couldn’t wrap his head around the height they were able to achieve and the risks they were willing to take. They were fearless.

With that in mind, it comes as no surprise that two Norwegians embraced the waters in the northernmost corner of Norway for a sport usually reserved for sunnier climes—surfing. In Unstad, people have been practicing the sport of Arctic surfing since 1963.

Who were these fearless folks? While working as sailors, two Lofoten boys, Thor Frantzen and Hans Egil Krane, saw people surfing in Sydney. They took the sport home and are believed to be the first surfers in Norway. Besides the chilly weather, there was another problem in Unstad: where to get a surfboard. The Unstad Arctic Surf Company’s website explained how this need was met: “At that time, the famous Beach Boys were on all top hit lists and the only outline of a surfboard they had was the cover of the Beach Boys album Surfin’ Safari from 1962. So off they went and made their own surfboards from this cover.”

Another challenge was the limitation of outerwear for this extremely frosty climate. The pioneers of Arctic surfing used bathing suits, but this did not appeal to all. Even the locals could tolerate the cold for no more than 10 to 15 minutes. In the 1990s better-insulated wetsuits were developed that allowed locals and other surfers, who were used to warmer climes, to participate and enjoy the waves for longer periods of time.

Another impetus for the popularity of surfing in this area occurred in 1999 when Unstad was selected as the location for the surfer film E2K. It starred celebrity surfers Spencer and Sam Lamiroy.

Enough interest grew that by 2003, Thor Frantzen and his wife Randi built a few cabins, established a restaurant, and of course rented surfboards to form the Unstad Surfing Company. Today this business is run by their daughter, Marion Frantzen, and her partner in business and life, Tommy Olsen. I got to interview Tommy about this unique company and what it is like surfing in the most northern region of the world.

Victoria Hofmo: What is your surfing background?

Tommy Olsen: I’ve been surfing for 22 years, starting in Norway. Before that I was windsurfing since I was 13. (I’m 47 now.) I was also an ISA surfing instructor for seven years. I have surfed and traveled a lot of places like Hawaii, Australia, California, South Africa, Maldives, Indonesia, Morocco, and all of Europe.

VH: Besides the extreme cold, are there other differences from surfing in warmer climes?

TO: There are several differences: 6 mm of rubber, hoodies, boots, and gloves make it a little bit harder to surf in cold climates. You’re a little bit heavier with wetsuits, and it’s a little bit harder to paddle. But there are also less people in colder places. Warm places with waves are crowded and crowd is all surfers’ worst enemy.

VH: How did you first come to surf in the Arctic?

TO: We started surfing in Unstad 20 years ago. We lived in the south of Norway, so we spent our summer vacation in Unstad for surfing. We still have a boys’ trip to Unstad every year.

VH: Can you describe what surfing in the Arctic is like for our readers?

TO: Surfing in Unstad is unreal; the surf is more than perfect and you are surrounded by great nature and great people.

VH: How did you decide to open a surfing business in the Arctic?

TO: Opening a surf camp in northern Norway in 2003 was just pure coincidence. My mother-in-law bought the camp that was an old school so that we could have a “nice” family hobby. After the first year, we bought some surfboards and wetsuits and started the rental service. For several years, we were running the camp only in our summer vacations, together with my mother and father-in-law. The surfing just expanded and then we got some media coverage, and since then we have never looked back. Today we are open all year round. And we are 13 people that work there during summer. Summer is still our busiest period.

VH: Who are your clientele?

TO: Our customers are from all over the world. Mostly surfers, but now and then some random tourists that have seen the place before. During summer it’s a good mix of Scandinavians and foreign surfers. Lately there are many Americans who traveled to Lofoten.

VH: Can you describe your facility?

We have accommodation (cabin, apartment, and a beach house), campsite for tents and RVs, Surf School, surf rental, surf shop, and restaurant. We also have some surf camps both in summer and winter.

VH: I see that you offer classes. Is it mostly first timers? How many lessons does one need to be able to surf?

TO: We do mostly beginner lessons and private lessons. Our lesson is about four hours and makes you able to stand up and ride on your own.

VH: On your website you offer parties, corporate retreats, and business meetings. Are these around surfing? If so, how does that work?

TO: Our corporate service offers an all-inclusive experience with sleep, food, and experience. Our facility suites are perfect for groups between six and 20 people. We have all the facilities for a good meeting.

VH: I read that you offer events. Can you describe one?

TO: When it comes to events, we work together with the local surf club to hold a surf competition called “Lofoten Masters,” which is the northernmost surf competition in the world. We also arrange “The International Surfing Day,” and we are in charge of the local rescue group.

VH: What are your future plans for Unstad Arctic Surf?

TO: If we are looking 10 years ahead, we are expanding some of our old cabins to bring the camp to a little bit more modern facilities. We are keeping it low key since the place is very special and everything we do has to fit in.

I also had the opportunity to speak with Olsen’s wife, Marion Frantzen. I was curious to hear what it meant for her to be carrying on her parents’ legacy. She elaborates below:

“In 2000 we moved home to the Lofoten Islands from Stavanger in south Norway. The reason was that we would have our first child. Unstad was our great spot when coming home. So when the local community wanted to sell the old school (today’s Unstad Arctic Surf), we knew we would love to buy it. But we didn’t have money because we bought our first house just some months before. My mother and father thought this was a good idea, so they bought it. They thought it would be a good family business and a nice hobby! In 2009 they sold the company to us, and since then we have operated it with good help from Patrick Millin, mother, and father.”

Millin, a professional surfer, grew up in the States. I wanted to speak to a surfer who began surfing in warmer places, and he shared his story and thoughts about surfing at Unstad with me.

VH: Patrick, where else have you surfed?

PM: Hawaii, mainland Mexico, Baja, Peru, France, Spain, Portugal, Canada, Newfoundland, Faroe Islands, Russia, Fiji, Tonga, Denmark, Australia, Panamá, Costa Rica, and Bocas Del Toro.

VH: How does Arctic surfing in Unstad compare?

PM: On it’s best day, it rivals any world-class point break on the planet.

VH: What is most unique about the Unstad experience?

PM: Everything about it. The experience is unique—from suiting up in thick rubber in a wood-fired sauna to walking in waist-deep snow to get to shoreline. Then of course the mountains—nothing is more impressive then when you’re staring at these huge snow-capped peaks while waiting for your next ride. You feel close to God!

Millin has been so pumped about Unstad surfing that during his sixth trip back to the Lofoten Islands, he even made a short film for Surfer Magazine with Rick Starick. It includes clips of him and Brett Barley in action and is entitled Valhalla’s Coast: Journey to a Norwegian Surf Paradise with Pat Millin.

These rock star athletes are exhilarating to watch. When a wave swallows the surfer whole, the viewer is along for the ride, wondering if they will hang on to the board or be thrown off. These adept athletes rarely suffer the latter. Instead they emerge from the ocean like unexpected sea creatures. The film, which also includes amazing photos of the Northern Lights, sets me to dreaming of surfing in their shadows.

Watch Valhalla’s Coast: Journey to a Norwegian Surf Paradise with Pat Millin at www.surfer.com/videos/pat-millin-norway/#RGm1u6JWXG3gsuwH.97.

This article originally appeared in the April 7, 2017, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

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Victoria Hofmo

Victoria Hofmo was born, raised, and still lives in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, the historical heart of Norwegian New York. She is 3/4 Scandinavian: 1/2 Norwegian and 1/4 Danish/Swedish. Self-employed, she runs an out-of-school-time program that articulates learning through the arts. Hofmo is an advocate for arts and culture, education, and the preservation of the built and natural environment of her hometown, with a love for most things Scandinavian.